By Louise Gonsalvez
At fort-eight, after raising four children, I didn’t think I’d ever become the machete-swinging maiden of the Esmeraldas. Neither did I think I would be an Eco-rebel invading an abandoned shrimp farm to plant mangroves. Despite ticks, misquotes and fatigue, this Wellington boot wearing volunteer mud-bogged through Ecuadorian swamps and trekked through South American jungle habitat. I followed the footprints of gray whales off the Muisne coastline, unleashed my inhibitions to Latin salsas and best of all I made my South American travel experience an engaging Eco-challenge rather than a self-indulgent lull.
So, you want an adventure. Perhaps, you want something more engaging than an independent tour of Europe, less spectator-like than an African safari and definitely more challenging than an inclusive stay at some tropical resort. Then perhaps, consider a volunteer adventure, and if you want to get dirty, sweaty and primitive consider an assignment where you’re not only working to help local residents and communities but you’re actually focusing on environmentally sustainable projects. Hello, Mother Earth, I’ve returned to gather my roots to explore, not exploit, the wonders of the universe inherent in the Mangrove wetlands, the Pacific coastal shores and Jatun Sacha’s Congal biological reserves in Ecuador’s northern coast.
We all know that the forests are the lungs of the earth but I never knew that the coastal wetlands, as for example the gnarly high rooted mangroves, are essentially the gills to the seas. After an international symposium on wetlands, governments and environmental agencies acknowledged the high importance of these once considered worthless wastelands. Their roots secure coastal shores, the tides exchange salt for photo-plankton rich ingredients, the estuaries are a haven for small marine life and the trees are not only a habitat for wildlife but also a carbon engine for the air we breathe. Pretty awesome stuff!
One of the goals of the Congal Biomarine Center is to promote the resurrection of abandoned shrimp farms. In the eighties huge dikes and reservoirs were built to create shrimp ponds that captured the harvests of the seas on a high tide, These acreage size ponds would be dammed up, the shrimp and other marine life left to grow, and in five months time the farmers would have a bounty catch of shrimp for market. Unfortunately, in the late eighties, the white spot disease almost instantaneously wiped out the once very profitable industry and locals lost heart. On my first day at the station, I had the incredible experience of working with a team to ‘drain the swamp’. Some people were in hip deep mud removing 2 x 6 pieces of wood to initiate the drainage. Others were setting up fifteen foot poles and triangular netting on the creek to catch the bounty while the rest of us were in a fire-line ready to sort what was to be 225 pounds of shrimp, 140 pounds of fish and 40 pounds of crabs. What a riot!
Conversely, if shrimp farms were completely abandoned then the dikes and ponds were often destroyed to make way for mangrove replanting. To celebrate international mangrove day we joined forces with several other environmental agencies and youth groups to break down the walls of a shrimp farm and replant mangroves in the gooey mud. We couldn’t even wear our rubber boots because the mud demons would suction them away. To commend our work at the end of the day, all the restaurants on Muisne Island opened their doors for free meals and the following night the community had a rip-roaring festival which culminated with hundreds of people dancing the night away to salsa, marimba and meringue music. Our crew of twenty-four was stranded on the island as we danced to the wee hours and the motorized ferryboats had been parked for the eve. Nevertheless though, we were rescued by a sole owner of a dugout canoe to ferry us across, four passengers at a time. Him standing up in the rear, poling over the shallows and paddling the deeper areas, while four almost intoxicated foreigners awaited a return journey to camp. Afterwards, all of us returned, on the Bunshe dirt road, in the back of a half-ton. It’s the volunteer way!
Congal station, including its Congal Island reserve as well, has a number of projects operating to promote sustainable development. Palm trees have been planted where once there were once shrimp ponds and pineapples have been planted on the dykes around the ponds. Unfortunately, these goods fetch few funds at the market. Both on the mainland and on Congal Island, Jatun Sacha has been focusing on the planting and harvesting of more profitable crops such as bamboo, cashews and hardwood species.
To prove minimal self-sufficiency at the reserve, volunteers weekly trekked the steep Chontuduro hills to gather food. The tasks included climbing coconut and spiked mandarin trees, catching the fruit, machetteing twenty-foot tall stalks of bananas and then hauling all the loot back. We rebuilt stairs on the steep trails, macheted grazing-lands for the cattle and cut lengthy bamboo stalks for a flooring project. We also collected taiga, which is used for making carvings, and on my detail we had an encounter with a ‘horse-killer’ snake in a wasp-infested tree. I was somewhat alarmed but my more herpetology keen comrades were merely intrigued by such a viewing opportunity.
The station has a strong mandate to work with local communities. Volunteers teach at the local Bunshe School and the newly established Bunshe Daycare Centre. Carolina Baez. was working on a project in Muisne where she was teaching internet skills to the leaders of a women's cooperative. Since the early days, when clam harvesting nearly collapsed, women in this region have determinedly bonded together to economically survive. There stories are inspirational and their desire to network with other women’s groups in Spain is highly commendable.
Volunteers also contribute to beach cleanups, turtle monitoring and our tourist dollars are spent on weekend trips to local beaches where fifteen American dollars will fetch you a funky hotel, meal and transportation. Patronize local now that's really global!We also hired local boatmen for our whale watching and what a thrill that was! Maria Josie Barragan, one of Jatun’s researchers, has designed safe pliers for removing fishing barbs from sea turtles. The tool protects turtle populations and enhances the fishing industry.
My Ecuadorian volunteer adventure brought out more than just the Eco-warrior in me. Now, this grandma isn’t afraid to ‘get down’ with a Latin salsa or jungle trek with a machete. Most importantly though I’ve earned my stripes with a group of fabulous volunteers and Ecuadorian co-workers. I conclude my article by honoring my teammates, who never knew that at times I was ready to throw in the towel. So I bid you, "Desco Muchas Felicidades amis amigos. Hoy manana y siempre", which when translated means, " I wish you much happiness my friends. Today, tomorrow and forever." Thanks, for helping to make my year forty-eight great, and my sixth continent of travel, South America, a fascinating journey. If you want to resurrect your ‘true grit’ then become an Ecuadorian eco-volunteer and if you want the added bonus of working with local communities then go Jatun Sacha.